Dear Guitar Hero: Jeff Beck
In the late Sixties in the States we were all very aware of a “British blues explosion,” but was there a sense in England that the music was really expanding, and that what came next—the musical adventurousness of Cream and Jimi Hendrix—was on the horizon? —Kate McCrae
For me, the first shockwave was Jimi Hendrix. That was the major thing that shook everybody up over here. Even though we’d all established ourselves as fairly safe in the guitar field, he came along and reset all of the rules in one evening.
Next thing you know, Eric was moving ahead with Cream, and it was kicking off in big chunks. But me, I was left with nothing. That was the hurtful part, because I didn’t have anything to come back at them with. Time went by, and I scraped by with Cozy [Powell, drummer for 1971’s Rough and Ready and 1972’s Jeff Beck Group albums], and luckily enough I got with BBA [Beck, Bogert and Appice, in 1973], which was a power trio. That helped, because they were so enthusiastic, and it was like Cream on acid! Then George Martin comes in and we start mellowing down a bit and making more “classy” sort of music, I suppose you could say, with [1975’s] Blow by Blow.
In the late Sixties and into the early Seventies, jazz legend Miles Davis was incorporating more of a rock approach. He was known to tell his guitarists, “Play like Hendrix.” Was there ever an offer of any kind for you to play or record with Miles? —Harry Booth
In my mind’s eye, he was, and still is, so far up there in the world of jazz. He’s in a gold-plated place. Miles was one of those natural spirits that let the musicians do what they wanted to. On the Tribute to Jack Johnson album [1971, featuring guitarist John McLaughlin], you can hear John pushing a lot, and I think it was a great slight-of-hand on Miles’ part to get the vibe from someone else and then sit on top of that. There’s sort of a recirculating power going on. I would have loved to have had the chance to play with Miles, but it was never brought up. I don’t know if he even knew who I was. If he were to come back, I’d definitely knock on his door.
I’ve read about Jimi Hendrix coming every night for a week to jam with the Jeff Beck Group at the Scene Club in New York City. Can you describe what that was like and your relationship with Jimi? —Charles Pizer
We did six nights in a row there [in June 1968]. The initial gig that broke us in America was at the Fillmore East with the Grateful Dead. But after that success and the great write ups, we then had to go down-market at a small club for six nights. It gave everyone a chance to watch what they had just seen again, six times in a row. We didn’t really want to be scrutinized like that, in case we just happened to get lucky the night we played the Fillmore, which was quite good.
The first night at the Scene, Jimi didn’t show up, but he came for the rest of the five nights. Around about the halfway mark, he’d come in from whatever recording he’d been doing. The buzz was incredible: the place was packed anyway, but when he came in they were standing on each other’s shoulders. Sometimes he didn’t have his guitar, so he would turn one of my spare guitars upside down and played that way, and I actually played bass at one point. I’ve got a photograph of that. Thank god someone took a picture, because there’s hardly any record of those goings-on.
Around that time, Jimi and I played a secret gig, a benefit at [drug rehabilitation center] Daytop Village. Jimi drove me up in his Corvette…that was the best moment. His driving was terrible. We were stuck in traffic in the middle of New York City, and he had this brand-new 427 Corvette boiling over, and I thought, I hope it doesn’t blow up right here! [laughs] I was thinking, Why did you buy a Corvette in Manhattan?
I wasn’t looking for compliments, but before I met Jimi someone told me that he knew all about my recordings with the Yardbirds. He had to, because for someone so utterly flamboyant and played so inventively, I knew he was one for listening out. He wasn’t one of those staid, insular kinds of blues players; he would listen to everything. And that alone thrilled me. He’d also seen the Yardbirds live in 1965/1966 when he was playing sideman to Little Richard, I believe. It was amazing to see him play, and I’d met him before I saw him perform. I saw him at this tiny little club in London, with all of these “dolly birds,” which is what they called girls dressed in their miniskirts. I think they all thought he was going to be a folky, Bob Dylan–type of character [laughs], and he blew the place apart with his version of [Dylan’s] “Like a Rolling Stone.”
I just went, “Ah…this is so great!” It overshadowed any feelings of inferiority or competiveness. It was so amazing. To see someone doing what I wanted to do… I came out a little crestfallen, but on the positive side, here was this guy opening big doors for us. Instead of looking on the negative side and saying, “We’re finished,” I was thinking, No, we’ve just started! I was delighted to have known him for the short time that I did. It was the magical watering hole of the Speakeasy, the club where we hung out in London, that enabled that to happen. It was the one place you could go and be guaranteed to see Eric or Jimi and have fun playing. Those places don’t seem to exist anymore.